A new report from the European Community on scientific information in the digital age contains a sobering reminder of the importance of information preservation. During the recent ‘anthrax alert’, the British Library received multiple enquiries for research data on the topic. Since research on anthrax practically stopped in the 1950s there were few places with comprehensive and authoritative holdings on the subject. Since the record of human knowledge predates any one of us by centuries, and given the certainty that some information not currently deemed useful will prove invaluable in the future, long-term planning and policies for storing and making accessible this record would seem vital. Want to trust this to the ‘free market’? Find the report at: http://tinyurl.com/29qxjg. Reminds me of the time Afghanistan hit the news a few years back. The map library at UT, one of the great ones, received so much traffic that it practically drowned the system and forced a shutdown. So, you never know you need it until you need it, and then you better be able to access it in a hurry.
Archive for February, 2007
The information field represents a third force that is vital to our future well being. Sure we need technological advances and we need to understand how to leverage economic benefit from all the data that is out there, but as we now enter the first century in which more than half the world resides in an urban environment, the emerging socio-technical world in which we all reside needs to be understood as more than a computing and business environment. Without this other perspective we will not attend fully to important matters of policy and governance, design and interaction, curation and accuracy, and education and enhancement in our lives. The trouble with most discussions of information is they are tied so closely to a narrow view of technology that it is easy to lose sight of how enveloped we are becoming in new practices, behaviours and experiences. Yet it is these very human and cultural aspects which will prove vital to our ability to shape the kind of world in which we wish to live. I employed the term ‘third force’ in recent talks to emphasize how important it is for those of us in the information field to engage actively when the other forces of dominate discussions of how the future will be. I am not beating up on the business or technological agenda of others, I accept them as necessary. But I do object to discussions of information and our world being dominated by business and technological interests. If technology meeting the free market is all we need, why do I have to pay for bundled cable rather than the channels I actually watch? Why do libraries have to purchase journals they never use to get access to a few the scholars they support really read? Why are DVDs regionalized for playback? Why must I upgrade my software and hardware on a manufacturer’s cycle rather than my genuine need? Why are my 10 year old floppy disks gathering dust but my 50 year old vinyl records still sounding joyous? Why is educational software so bad, and gaming software so violent? Why must I limit the use of my own words once I agree to have them published in a scholarly journal? Why is most policy on information infrastructure so out of touch with our professional and personal lives? Who will steward our cultural resources when there is no obvious profit margin to be gained? And don’t forget all the other questions about access to information, the right to read what you want, the accuracy of information and so forth. The answers to these questions might point you in a new direction for thinking about our world and how we want it to be. May the third force be with you!
One of my students pointed me to a good read in the New Yorker on Google: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/070205fa_fact_toobin. The subject of just what google might be up to has been an intriguing one for me recently, what with my own university joining the great digitization project and rumors circulating at recent conferences on the company’s purchases of dark fiber networks. Toobin makes the comment at the end of his article that “it’s folly to judge the company’s behavior on moral grounds. Its shareholders certainly don’t.” Is this really so? Are we not all stakeholders in this information space and don’t we have an interest in how access to the published work is controlled? Google’s corporate page contains several interesting quotes http://www.google.ca/corporate/index.html:
“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
” As a business, Google generates revenue by providing advertisers with the opportunity to deliver measurable, cost-effective online advertising that is relevant to the information displayed on any given page. This makes the advertising useful to you as well as to the advertiser placing it.”
Oh well, that’s alright then.
Last year I wrote about the search for a sexier topics among computer science types that it was hoped would renew student interest in the field. The latest data indicates that interest in CS as a major appears to have dropped 70% in recent years. Data to be released March 1st by CRA will reveal “a second year of double digit declines” in the number of enrolled CS students: http://www.cra.org/wp/index.php?p=104.
The peak years of interest for the field were the early 1980s and the late 1990s, which may point to a cyclical process (just like the cyclical warming of our atmosphere!) but the current interest levels are equivalent to those reported for the the mid-1970s. No equivalent data exists for information schools or LIS programs but most that I know are informally reporting very healthy enrollments. Of course, most iSchools are graduate programs so the comparison is not entirely fair. That said, computer science graduate programs are reporting declines also but the numbers are still up over their recent lows of 2000-2001. In absolute terms, there are still roughly 50,000 CS graduate students in the US each year, which swamps the number of information program grads by about a factor of 10. Still, these metrics are only part of the story. Our school graduates about 100 people per year and we have no plans to grow this number although there is healthy demand from applicants. A fuller picture also would have to look at the employment patterns of graduates and this is a complicated picture. CS grads generally do earn better than average wages but there are serious declines in employment prospects for programmers and database administrators. Similarly, our grads tend to get jobs pretty quickly (half are employed before they graduate) but the variability in salary is quite significant, depending on where grads ply their trade. As a senior professional told my intro class this week, there will be no jobs for them as traditional catalogers, but plenty of opportunities for them to help implement better information systems and services. Regardless, in the sex appeal stakes, we all know information trumps computation.
As experiments in collective authorship through digital media go, the various encyclopedia have it comparatively easy. The Penguin publishing house, in collaboration with De Montfort University in the UK, has started an experiment in collective writing of a novel which, if early results are an indication, might prove the unfortunate truth of at least one interpretion of the expression: ‘many hands make light work’ . It’s live, it’s now and it’s open to influence at: http://www.amillionpenguins.com/wiki/index.php/About. The real question is what it will look like after a few weeks? Will people deliberately try to make nonsense or will a narrative emerge? Could this tell us something about the structural inevitabilities of language or groups? Is this the birth of a new genre? Currently it’s a horrible mish-mash but one wonders………